Police in Tampa, Florida, arrested seven people over the weekend who had dared to share food with members of the city's homeless community, despite being told not to.
Volunteers from the direct action charity group Food Not Bombs were gathered on Saturday afternoon at Lykes Gaslight Park, sharing hot coffee and bagels with Tampa’s homeless community, according to an account shared with CL Tampa local newspaper.
Police then quickly raided the site, arresting seven of the volunteers and one homeless man who had the audacity to grab a bagel after the cops had ordered people to stop eating.
“When police arrived on the scene, they gave the activists three minutes to stop feeding those in need,” reads the letter shared with CL Tampa. “Then, they moved in, pulling the volunteers away as they continued to serve. ‘Please help yourselves,’ one could be heard saying to those still gathered as he was dragged off.”
The incident was streamed live to Facebook.
According to Tampa law, you need a special permit to offer free food to people in city parks. But the permits can get pricey because of the insurance policy the city requires in order to get one – especially when sharing food with the public, as Food Not Bombs does twice a week on a volunteer budget.
The problem isn’t limited to Tampa alone – volunteers of the same group in other cities such as Orlando have also been arrested for the same reasons. Other cities like Dallas and Austin, Texas, have similar laws.
Indeed, an October 2014 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless found that, "Since January, 2013 alone, 21 cities have successfully restricted the practice through legislative actions or the intensity of community pressures to cease distributing food to those in need."
This is why, despite a warning earlier in the week, the group had gone ahead and distributed food anyway. Despite these latest arrests – not their first – the group has vowed to continue doing the work.
"We intend to expose the city's cruelty in the face of thousands in our community who are struggling with issues of food insecurity, mental and medical health issues, poverty, and homelessness," a spokesperson for the group said in an email addressed to CL Tampa.
"If the city will not address these problems, the least they can do is not get in the way and stop others from addressing these needs. Compassion should never be criminalized.”
The group will continue organizing with a gathering planned for Tuesday at 8 a.m.